More than half of the roughly 5,100 people in West Virginia’s regional jails are incarcerated without being convicted of a crime, lawmakers learned Monday.
Each of West Virginia’s 10 regional jails is “bursting at the seams” at 5,137 inmates, Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation Commissioner Betsy Jividen told the Legislative Joint Judiciary Committee Monday. Officials said the jails are operating about 25 percent over the capacity they were built to maintain.
Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, the committee’s co-chairman, said the state’s overcrowded jails and prisons would be a focus for legislators next year.
On Monday, lawmakers discussed potential policies, including changing laws affecting bail for people charged with crimes; improving accessibility to resources when people are released from prison; and creating more systemic substance abuse treatment and recovery options, both as an alternative to prison and as part of rehabilitation in prison.
The state’s regional jails are equipped to house 5,102 inmates, according to a 2018 report from the state’s Regional Jail Authority, which was combined with the Division of Corrections that year to establish what now is the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
On Wednesday, Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety said the 2018 report refers to “stackable bunks,” which aren't counted in the operational capacity of the regional jails. Messina said Division officials count 4,265 beds in the regional jails as the operating capacity for the regional jails.
Based on a Division of Corrections report from 2018, House Judiciary Counsel Brian Casto said the entire Division of Corrections facilities had about 7,000 inmates at the time that report was compiled.
Later in the meeting, Jividen said as of Nov. 14, the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation was operating with 11,053 inmates in all of its facilities, which were equipped to house 10,250 inmates.
Jividen said the division had added 1,000 beds to its facilities to accommodate the people in the state's custody.
House Judiciary counsel Paul “Kip” Reese said 51 percent of regional jail inmates in the Mountain State are in pre-trial status. That means they’ve been arrested and charged with a crime, but their cases are still progressing through the court system.
Magistrates and circuit judges set bonds for people charged with crimes, and those who aren’t able to make bail payment and aren’t given what’s known as a personal recognizance bond are incarcerated.
Counties and municipalities pay $48.25 per inmate per day to keep a person in a regional jail. The actual cost is $53.75, Jividen said, but the Legislature has frozen the rate.
Lida Shepherd, with the American Friends Service Committee, asked the committee to reconsider a bill from this year’s legislative session that would have allowed people charged with certain nonviolent misdemeanors to be released from jail on a personal recognizance bond.
“Historically, bail is supposed to be a way of ensuring people charged with crimes will appear in court,” Shepherd said. “In reality, bail is routinely set very, very high with the result that people with financial means are able to post bond, be with their families, retain their jobs and appear in court more prepared, and those without financial means languish in jail at a huge cost to taxpayers.”
“We would like to see you revisit this bill, essentially, so decisions regarding pre-trial release are based on considerations of public safety, not on poverty.”
The bill (House Bill 2190) passed the House during this year’s legislative session, but stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
In 1995, there were 2,500 people incarcerated in the state’s jail system, and the Legislature began to take action to alleviate a skyrocketing inmate population when, in 2000, the state’s jail population had grown to about 4,000, House Judiciary counsel Brian Casto said Monday.
The legislature passed a bill in 2001 to provide alternatives to incarceration, which Casto said helped to keep about 1,000 out of jail.
In 2009 then-Gov. Joe Manchin tasked the Governor’s Commission on Prison Overcrowding with finding ways to alleviate the overcrowding of jails.
The commission came up with 14 recommendations based on finding alternative sanctions for low-offense level felons; shortening the length of time low-risk offenders spend in jail based on rehabilitation; adding 1,200 new prison beds via a new facility; and more work-release units to assist inmates in re-entering their communities when they’re released from jail.
In 2013, the legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act.
The law allowed circuit judges to include six-month early supervised-release terms when they sentence nonviolent offenders to regional jails. The law also provided the court system to use risk assessments to determine defendants’ risks and needs if they were placed on probation.
The law also set a timetable to expand drug courts in the state.
Without the 2013 law, Casto said Monday, the state’s jail population would be even bigger than it is now, with an estimated 9,000 people who would be incarcerated under previous laws.
In total, five of the 14 recommendations made by the 2009 commission were adopted in the past 10 years, including the construction of the St. Mary’s Correctional Center in Pleasants County.
Some of the actions haven’t been implemented due to consistent budget shortfalls in the intervening decade since the 2009 report.
Casto said the preference would be to address laws that affect the court and incarceration processes, particularly noting that the construction of a 1,200-bed jail was “the atomic bomb” and “last resort” solution for the overcrowding issue for the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the legislature.
Casto said the state would have trouble paying to build it, and Shott noted the state also would have a difficult time paying to staff such a facility.
Also during the meeting, Jividen addressed, for at least the second time this year, deteriorating infrastructure of some of the overcrowded facilities. Jividen told lawmakers there were at least $193 million in unfunded maintenance issues at regional jails, including “incredible” sewage issues that are compounded by the overcrowding in the jails.
“This is getting worse instead of better,” Jividen said.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with information regarding inmate populations in Division of Corrections facilities and to clarify that counties and municipalities pay $48.25 per day to house an inmate at a regional jail.